Everyone had known John was taking the Post's buyout. His Facebook fans read his final two reviews on Friday, and saw the photograph he posted of the press card he slipped under the door before leaving the building. But that void still created a ripple of distress and disbelief.
John, who'd had the Post baseball beat at one point, took over the theater job a decade ago and set about transforming arts coverage in this town, and the theater scene along with it. He was a tireless advocate. He began with the usual reviews and advances, fought his editors tooth and nail for more print space, and also made innovative use of every other medium at his disposal -- for which work he was named one of the country's twelve most influential critics by American Theatre Magazine, and won a Westword web award last month.
John ran slides on the paper's website, chunks of script, videos, live podcasts, a rolling log of current productions and a blog called Running Lines. He Tweeted. He posted on Facebook. Mindful of the next generation, he created a forum called Standing O to cover high school dramatics and draw students and their families into the arts scene. He organized the Post's annual Ovation awards and helped the Colorado Theatre Guild formulate its Henrys. John was everywhere around town where theater was happening -- openings, closings, panels, celebratory parties, goodbye parties. If an actor injured himself onstage, a playwright scored a success, a Colorado performer made good in New York, you'd hear about it from John.
"I've never seen a critic with a major daily who covered as many bases," says Melanie Mayner, publicist for the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. "You could just see his passion for theater. And for journalism."
Gloria Shanstrom, head of the Colorado Theatre Guild, remembers working with John on a project that sent several well-known Denverites who didn't usually attend theater -- including Reggie Rivers -- out to shows; John recorded their responses in the newspaper. That project morphed into the Guild's regular Theater Night Out. Actor Mare Trevathan notes that John had national influence: His criticisms of the Disney colossus The Little Mermaid, which premiered in Denver, were taken to heart by producers, who made changes before the show hit New York -- still with a critical thud, but to large and enthusiastic audiences.
"There are a number of times when I think John helped the Center get national publicity, for instance the way he followed the development of The Laramie Project and supported the Colorado New Play Summit," comments Chris Wiger, who was for many years director of publicity at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
Brian Freeland, who runs Denver's most experimental theater, LIDA, met John on the critic's first day on the job -- which also happened to be September 11, 2001. LIDA was doing an expressionistic version of Our Town, and an interview had been set up. "Around noon, I called and asked, 'Do you still want to get together?' says Freeland, "and he said, 'What I want is to get out of this newsroom.' He'd been there all day."
The two men had an intense conversation over coffee, and Freeland says the interlude grounded him: "We talked about his mom, who had done theater, including Our Town ... It was a reminder of why theater is important, even in the midst of tragedy, one of those profound moments where I was able to refocus and get back to work. I'll always remember that time with him."
Wiger, too, has a specific memory. When the Denver Center staged Mark Harelik's moving biographical musical, The Immigrant, luminous actress Jacqueline Antaramian was cast as the grandmother. "John wrote the most beautiful pre-show story comparing Mark's real-life grandmother's immigration to Jacquie's immigration as a three- or four-year-old from Armenia," Wiger says. "He researched both family trees and actually found photographs. He did his homework, and then he went so much further."
Among theater folks, there's a lot of trepidation about the future. The loss of a dedicated voice at the Post is "potentially just devastating," says Curious Theatre artistic director Chip Walton. "If the theater beat goes away, none of us knows what the new normal is going to be. We've all heard a lot of talk about what kind of cultural community Denver aspires to be. I feel we've made good progress. But it's hard to talk about yourself as a significant cultural center when you don't even have a daily theater critic. I'm one of those hardcore stubborn people who still want to read my newspaper in print every day. I open up that section that used to be Arts & Entertainment and there's nothing there, just TV listings, movie listings, and the horoscope. I don't even know why that section exists any more."
"There are a lot of small companies and actors who do their work for very little money," points out Freeland. "The reviews they get validate and give truth to their endeavors. For folks who've been around town for a long time, it's all the more bitter to watch John go because the circumstances aren't just that he's moving on and the next person will come. I can remember three long-term Denver Post theater critics, John being the third, in my life, and now we know that there's probably never going to be another. It's fascinating to read the bloggers and instant critics, but there's something to be said about an institutionalized paper or independent paper that has some sort of editorial oversight, where you know that every story gets eyes on it. There's authority that comes with that. I love new media, but it's moments like these where you go, Wow, look what we're losing along the way.
"It's hard watching John walk away," he adds, "but good that he was able to do it with grace and dignity, and somewhat on his own terms."